Thursday, November 20, 2014

"If everything seems under control, you're just not going fast enough."          ~ Mario Andretti


"Eat anything you want!" she told me. "Taste everything!"

"OK," I answered, "but I don't like ice cream…"

"Oh! Well, we don't sell much of it. But some people like it so we have it over there in that little freezer, just in case."

It was the second day of my summer vacation. I'd be a university sophomore when September came around, but this was my first day of work at the best bakery in Stamford, Connecticut... my sweet tooth's idea of Heaven!

The doors opened at 7AM, and people crowded in and elbowed their way out for two and a half solid hours, people on their way to work who wanted donuts, croissants, cinnamon rolls, and coffee. The price tags were on the front of each tray, and written on the back of the tags, too, so this new employee could ring up the totals quickly and satisfy the mob.

By 10AM there was finally a lull. The owner left me in charge of the front, while her husband, the baker and co-owner, was in the back making the last batch of strawberry tarts in the compact workroom. It took me two weeks before I found out the secret of bakeries. Bakers' hours are NOT the same as their clerks are. A baker's day begins at approximately 2 or 3AM! His work would be done way before I could go home, but then, as he said, I got to sleep in until 6AM every day. What more could I ask for, he asked!

I was hired to work, so I cleaned the finger marks off every speck of glass in the bakery. I straightened the left-over pastries in soldierly straight lines so they were as perfect as before the shop opened. I polished the wobbly, sliding mirror doors so they glittered. Then I heard the owner/husband/baker yell, "See ya tomorrah," and he was gone.

Now what to do? Hmmm... I stood on one foot… then I stood the other… then on both feet. Then I decided to do some releves from my ballet days. Oh, I know... this must be the time for me to taste everything in the shop. As a good employee, I would follow the owner's directions to a fare-thee-well! 

I did taste… EVERYTHING! Then, since all was quiet on the bakery front, I went back for seconds! By the time I was taking "thirdsies," the homemakers began coming into the shop, and I had to quit my wild foraging. 

As I passed by the glittering mirror, I saw a swath of chocolate smeared on my cheek, but I had no time to run to the lavatory and wash it off. Besides, I thought, it might be good advertising… That, or the customers would think I was licking the very pastries they were buying! They'd call the health department! They'd have me fired on my first day of work! Or worse, I'd be working in the jailhouse bakery… Oops, Terry, your imagination is once again running wild… 

I got a hold of myself quickly when I remembered why I NEEDED this job. It wasn't only that I loved sweets. It was that I needed to buy books for my British Literature classes and paint for my art classes next semester. Without this job, in the fall I'd need to live inside the campus library every moment I wasn't in class, and I'd have to learn how to make paint from the berries that must grow somewhere in those Nebraska fields… Sheesh!

You probably think that I was off work every day at 6PM or something. NO! This bakery was opened until 9PM… 9PM!!! Don't ask me why, because I never asked the owners that question. In fact, I never asked them anything. I just did what I was told. 

As I write this, I'm thinking… what did you do for lunch, Terry? You must have had a break. And what did you do for dinner, by the way? Can't remember… I must have eaten something besides pastries, but I can't remember ever leaving the bakery until 9:01 every night. Sounds like slavery to me. Maybe it was, except for the wonder of eating every good thing that talented baker created.

Now, Connecticut public schools have a longer school year than universities do, so after the lunch crowd had left the bakery that day, the kids from school swarmed in for something good to eat as they ambled home. After all, they needed some energy for the mounds of homework that Connecticut teachers loved to assign. 

 Again there was this lull for about an hour, after the school kids left and before the adults leaving work would stop in to buy fresh baked bread and those beautiful strawberry tarts for their after-dinner desserts that evening. So the owner began chatting with me. She told me that they had opened their first bakery in New York City where they were from, but they had finally left there and moved to Connecticut. 

I listened closely as I crammed another cream puff into my mouth, anxious to chew it up so I could accomodate the brownie with the superb chocolate frosting waiting in my other hand.

"Why'd'ja leave?" That was hard to say with that last bite of brownie sticking to the roof of my mouth.

"We got tired of paying 'protection money' to those 'goons!'"

"Wass that?" I managed to ask as I chewed. And she explained the "protection money" concept to me and how it was initiated and what a "goon" was. It was nearly as exciting to listen to the details of the racketeers as it was to select my next sweet treat to eat.

Well, finally at about 6:30PM the lady owner said that she'd be back at 8:45 so she could count the money, put it into the safe, and lock up. "Will you be alright, Terry?"

"Sure!" I said, thinking of the rising cost of red paint and the campus bookstore's price of just one 5-inch-wide required British Lit text.

But at 6:30PM, it was getting dark. All the other stores on the street had closed a half hour before. The bakery was on the corner of the main street in town and a cross street, and both the front and the street-side of the bakery were made up of large windows. You know what? It feels creepy to be inside a fishbowl! I could see car headlights as they rolled past the windows, but that's about all. But I knew that anyone driving by could see everything inside that bakery… well, like you, Terry. You are the only one in the shop! And they could see things like the cash register sitting right there in plain sight of the passers-by, and, of course, everyone understands that it has money in it… You know, things like that… creepy things like that…

Maybe if I stood behind the back counter next to the cash register, I could run through the workroom and out the backdoor… only if I needed to... just precautionary thinking, mind you. Good idea, Terry, I thought. I think I thought that, but who knows… I had chomped down at least 23 delightful bakery creations so far that day, and I was probably light-headed from all that SUGAR!

As I tried to casually saunter back behind the farthest counter, I accidentally bumped into that darn wobbly sliding mirror door. I barely hit it, mind you! But, part of it seemed to jump out of its runners and crash to the floor, spattering splinters all over the aisle! A jagged piece of mirror was left in its runner, jutting out awkwardly into the space between.

I grabbed a broom and swept up the broken glass, but the huge piece of jagged mirror had me flummoxed. I'm ashamed to say that I was actually frightened of it. I left it leaning out into space there.  

Of course, at about 8:30-ish or so, the lady owner arrived! How would you explain the debris? 

Well, I explained it to her just like I've written it here, and she didn't fire me! I suppose she figured that the worst had already happened… or maybe it was the sight of my tears… or maybe she understood, even back then, that a huge overdose of sugar all the live-long day, that sugar contained in her husband's delicious, mouth-watering pastries, was not the best way to determine if a new employee was going to work out.

Her invitation to eat anything I wanted, had worked brilliantly! The only thing that I couldn't resist for the rest of that summer was the heavenly smell of bread baking. There just isn't any aroma in the world better than that! I never did get over the weird feeling during those night hours that I was on duty in the bakery, though. And I did eat a pastry now and then, but never more than 3 a day… or maybe, 5. Well, it all depended...   

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